Walt Whitman, “America’s Poet”

Walt Whitman helped transform the literary scene in the United States during the 19th century, becoming one of the most influential poets of his time. A free thinker, he pioneered free verse and was both criticized and revered for his writings.

Walt Whitman’s Early Days

Walt Whitman was born on May 31, 1819, in West Hills, New York, part of the first generation of Americans to be born in a newly independent country. Walt spent his childhood in a household marked by his father’s brooding English temperament and his mother’s friendlier Dutch disposition.

According to Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, Quaker thought was central to Walt’s development. Although his family wasn’t particularly religious, his mother had a Quaker background. Walt was also highly influenced by a lecture he heard from a radical Quaker named Elias Hicks, a friend of Walt’s father.

When he was just 11 years old, he finished with formal education and instead cultivated his own learning opportunities through museum visits, extensive reading and conversation with everyone he met.

Whitman engaged in a variety of different occupations, including working as a teacher, a journalist and a clerk for the Department of the Interior. After the onset of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a “purged” and “cleansed” life, as the Academy of American Poets reports.

When his brother was injured in the war, Walt traveled to Washington, D.C. to help care for him in the hospital. Seeing so many wounded soldiers overwhelmed him and prompted him to remain in the city for 11 years to work in the hospitals.

Sources in this Story

Whitman’s Poetry

Ironically, Whitman’s breakthrough work, “Leaves of Grass,” did not start off as a commercial success. Whitman paid for the printing of the book himself, and sold almost no copies. “But in time,” according to the Walt Whitman House, “this small book…would alter the course of world literature.”

Whitman departed from writing about European subjects, in European style, as many of his contemporaries were doing. In a critique of Whitman’s work, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed…I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”

Whitman began some of his most famous works in the notebooks he always carried with him. It is estimated that Whitman completed at least 100 such notebooks during his writing career. While many of these were actual notebooks, others were just loose pages he bound together using ribbon.

Forty of these notebooks were donated to the Library of Congress, and they provide a firsthand look at Whitman’s thoughts jotted down on paper: bits of prose and poetry and journalistic ideas for articles he thought he would like to write.

The Man and His Work

The Rest of the Story

On January 23, 1873, Whitman suffered a stroke that weakened his left arm and leg and left him partially paralyzed. In spite of his physical decline, he continued to write steadily.

Whitman owned just one house in his lifetime—a two-story frame house he purchased in 1884 for $1,750, located in the town of Camden, New Jersey. After his brother George and wife Louisa moved to a more rural area, Whitman was left in the care of a widow named Mary O. Davis, who moved in with him and kept his house in exchange for free rent and a small salary. Davis remained with the poet until his death on March 26, 1892.

The New York Public Library Digital Gallery pays tribute to the poet with a collection of photos of Whitman throughout the years.

This article was originally written by Lindsey Chapman; it was updated May 6, 2017.